Tuesday 24 April 2018

THE CLEANERS - Review By Greg Klymkiw - 2018 Hot Docs Hot Pick: ***** 5-Stars

The gatekeepers of online morality are censors.

The Cleaners (2018)
Dir. Hans Block, Moritz Riesewieck

Review By Greg Klymkiw

The scariest word I've heard in quite some time is:


and it's a word we hear, almost mantra-like in the chilling documentary The Cleaners, a scary portrait of content moderators in the world of social media.

So what, precisely, does a content moderator do? Well, as we discover, they are employees of entities like Facebook, Google, Instagram, Twitter and other social media platforms that have become an almost inextricable part of all our lives. Their job is to scour the internet looking for anything that contravenes company policy, community standards and yes, in many cases, illegal acts (images of child pornography). The offensive material is deleted, and as we experience in the film, it's with a simple keystroke and the utterance of that dreaded word:


Filmmakers Block and Riesewieck focus primarily on a handful of content moderators working in Manila and what we learn early on is that they are not directly employed by any of the aforementioned social media giants, but rather, companies that have been outsourced to provide these services. We're given scant information about how these moderators are actually trained, but what we see and learn is mighty scary.

The moderators are there, in effect, to provide censorship. This would be fine if we were dealing strictly with cut-and-dried materials like child pornography and hate crime/racism, but it goes far beyond this. Nudity, sexuality, acts of violence in war, political satire and/or any personal expression outside of the norm is fair game.

Though the moderators have specific guidelines, this requires them to constantly make judgement calls about what gets deleted and what doesn't. For example, we follow one of the moderators and discover that she is a devout Catholic. Her rabid Christianity is clearly at play in her decisions to "delete".

What's especially impressive about the film is that it employs a fair bit of journalistic balance, but not at the expense of the film's artistry and certainly not at the expense of presenting a point of view that's as progressive as it is scary. What these moderators do is clearly not a good thing. The social media giants are succumbing to all sorts of pressures to restrict/control content - worst of all, from governments that would block the platforms without censorship.

Structurally, the film is cleverly designed to present a myriad of characters and viewpoints. For the most part, the moderators seem like reasonable and intelligent young people, but they are bound both by policy and the fact that they have no choice but to make personal decisions based on their interpretation of said policy. The film also presents the viewpoints of several artists and activists - we see their work, the very valid reasons for its creation and dissemination and then, shockingly, we see moderators discovering the material, applying "policy" to it and then issuing the decree:


We hear about and occasionally see the sort of disturbing and even horrific material these moderators are constantly subjected to and sadly, we learn about how some content moderators are driven to taking their own lives. In countries like the Philippines, we learn that finding a life beyond poverty drives a lot of intelligent young people into the business of content moderation - but for them, the effects can be devastating.

We see American politicians within the context of public hearings as they grill representatives of social media giants about content policies as they relate to child pornography, political interference and terrorism, but clearly the politicians, no matter how well meaning, are completely clueless about social media and the internet in general and the various Google/Twitter/Facebook reps are little more than slick flacks.

What haunts you, long after the film is over are the evocative shots of the moderators themselves as they work. The cameras are trained upon their eyes as they consume endless images on computers screens. If we are looking into the windows of their collective souls, we're looking into hearts and minds of a world mediated by corporate greed, corruption and dedicated to suppression to maintain the highest profit margins possible.

Ultimately, nobody profits - least of all, humanity.


The Cleaners enjoys it Canadian Premiere at Hot Docs 2018 in Toronto.

Coincidentally, Michael Walker, a brilliant young Canadian artist who posts his beautiful work to hundreds of thousands of followers on Instagram had his account removed by the social media giant the very week I saw The Cleaners.

Yes, someone uttered the words DELETE and with a keystroke, this artist's work was removed.

Feel free to protest this affront to free speech. In the case of Mr. Walker's work, this is a clear act of Homophobia, no doubt perpetrated by a "content moderator" applying flawed, personal standards based on corporate policies that are skewed to protecting only profit margins.

Here is Michael's Story: